Gun-shy victims of a trigger-happy culture

Police suspect that Monday's anonymous phone call about a man with a gun preparing to open fire at Yale University was a hoax, but at the time it seemed all too real to terrified students, faculty and staff who hid in their dorm rooms, classrooms and offices for hours while heavily armed authorities searched the New Haven campus.

The incident took place only a few weeks after Central Connecticut State University in New Britain remained in lockdown for several hours when witnesses reported seeing a masked man carrying a gun or sword.

Police then tracked down and arrested a student who said he had been wearing a ninja-like Halloween costume and didn't intend to hurt anybody. He faces charges, including breach of peace, and has since withdrawn from the university.

That same day police raced to a video store in Fairfield after receiving frantic emergency calls about a masked man with a gun.

Officers armed with long guns converged on the shopping plaza only to discover that the alleged perpetrator was the store manager's cousin, dressed up like a video game character as part of a sales promotion.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, some 2,000 people fled from two terminals at Los Angeles International Airport and dozens of flights were delayed after people thought they heard gunshots. Turns out a woman driving on the airport's arrivals loop who had a medical emergency slammed her SUV into a parking garage.

Unfortunately, for every false alarm there's a real-life crisis.

The Yale situation took place just as a long-awaited report on last year's school massacre at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School was being released; the Los Angeles incident occurred three weeks after a gunman ran amok at the airport, killing a Transportation Security Administration officer and injuring three others before police shot and injured him.

Bystanders have no way of knowing if the costumed character at a mall video store is part of a publicity stunt or if he is mimicking James Holmes, accused of donning tactical clothing and shooting to death 12 people and wounding 70 others last year during a midnight screening of the film "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo.

Authorities responding to reports of a gunman heading for a school don't know if they will encounter a goofy student in a Halloween costume or an Adam Lanza, who killed 20 elementary students and six adults before taking his own life; or a Seung-Hui Cho, who shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech in 2007 before turning a gun on himself.

Sadly, we are all gun-shy victims of a trigger-happy culture.

After 9/11 we are continuously admonished, "If you see something, say something."

When we do say something that turns out to be nothing, though, sometimes thousands of people are inconvenienced. What's a conscientious citizen to do?

Part of the dilemma has to do with living in an age of instant communication and a 24-hour news cycle.

In the past when some nut - or some kid who didn't want to take a history test - phoned in a bomb scare, newspapers usually didn't report the incident, agreeing with authorities trying to discourage copycats. These days, TV stations dispatch satellite trucks to provide live coverage, and the news is also instantly spread by Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

For better or worse, we are better informed, but more jittery.

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